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Assessment on six remote atolls after major floods

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Jan. 21, 2008) - Officials from the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency are in the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia this week assessing damage from high waves that hit low-lying islands in December to determine if it meets U.S. requirements for providing disaster aid.

Two FEMA inspectors left Sunday evening with Marshall Islands Disaster Office officials on a 14-day assessment trip to six remote atolls aboard the government’s patrol vessel.

In the Federated States of Micronesia, FEMA assessors are expected to wrap up their on-site assessment early this week and submit their report, Bart Deemer, a U.S. Agency for International Development official based in the Marshall Islands who is overseeing the disaster response in both western Pacific countries, said before the vessel departed for the outer atolls in the Marshall Islands.

Presidents in both countries declared states of emergency in late December following high-wave events that inundated low-lying areas, damaging some homes and agriculture areas.

"Food crops are a big concern," said Marshall Islands government Chief Secretary Casten Nemra, noting that many areas around the county experienced salt water inundation, which will hurt fruit and vegetable crops. "We’re witnessing signs of problems with food crops."

In response to requests for assistance, last week the Australian government provided US$50,000 to each country, and Taiwan, which as diplomatic ties with the Marshall Islands, provided US$20,000 and 10 containers of rice.

Deemer said that the two FEMA officials conducting the outer atoll assessment are water and agriculture specialists because the Marshall Islands government identified these as high-risk areas from salt water flooding.

Under Compacts of Free Association with Washington, the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia are eligible for U.S. disaster aid.

Recent amendments to the Compacts shift U.S. responsibility for disaster aid from FEMA to USAID, and Deemer explained that the two U.S. agencies are now working together "to transition emergency disaster relief and reconstruction aid from FEMA to USAID."

The assessment of damage on the outer atolls "will inform the U.S. government’s decision of how to go forward (for disaster assistance)," Deemer said.

The reason the assessment of the outer atolls was delayed was to allow the FEMA officials to join with the Marshall Islands government team instead of having to conduct two separate assessments, Deemer said.

In Majuro, the capital, hardest hit by the waves was the College of the Marshall Islands, which has submitted a report detailing US$760,000 in damages.

Focusing on the need to protect low-lying coastal areas should be a government priority, College of the Marshall Islands President Wilson Hess said Friday. Most of the Marshall Islands are little more than one meter above sea level, but some coastal areas -- particularly where causeways have been built joining previously separate islands -- are barely above the high tide line, making them vulnerable to storm surges.

"Let me suggest that events such as this -- although triggered primarily by astronomical alignments -- should alert our policy makers to the increasing need to consider an active plan for coastal armoring to protect especially vulnerable areas and important national resources," Hess said. "A survey of such sites should be conducted as a priority planning measure."

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